Posted in New York City, Photography, Travel

A city long ago and worlds apart

Once upon a time, long ago and worlds apart, there was a great city teeming with vibrancy. People from all walks of life lived alongside one another, despite the age-old chasm between supreme wealth and profound poverty. All sorts chose to make this city their home—artists, intellectuals, writers, poets, actors, singers, musicians, seamstresses, tailors, dockworkers, factory workers, fishmongers, small business owners, department store salespeople, politicians, police, fire fighters, doctors, nurses, junkmen, clergy, teachers, grocers, florists, butchers, architects, millionaires.

They lived in structures ranging from tiny rooms to grand mansions, all contributing something to the life of this great city. Each neighborhood and district was like a miniature city unto itself. Despite the many wealthy residents, there were equal bourgeoisie and proletariat. A humble junkman or garment factory employee could live and raise a family there as well as a teacher, baker, or millionaire.

This city had a renowned public school system, and its free colleges were known as proletarian versions of Harvard, schools where one could get a top-flight education equal to that of any Ivy. While home ownership was out of reach for many, generations of lower- and middle-income people happily, comfortably raised families in fairly spacious apartments and took advantage of many public parks to compensate for the lack of backyards.

Then the ruling classes came together and hatched a plan to gradually take back the city for themselves. Though their plans were temporarily thwarted by the Stock Market crash, complicated forces came together in the wake of WWII which ultimately led the city from its most glorious pinnacle to a sharp downward spiral. It ultimately recovered, but it’s never been the same since.

As always, the very rich and very poor still live there, but it’s no longer the hospitable environment it once was for bourgeoisie and proletariat making a living and raising families, nor for bright-eyed intellectuals, artists, writers, musicians, actors, and political activists hoping to find like-minded communities.

But there once was a great city, long ago and worlds apart.

My theme this year is the New York City which now largely lives in memory. Though many of these places still exist, they’re not the same as they were prior to the city’s tragic slide into near-bankruptcy and high levels of crime, followed by most of Manhattan and large parts of Brooklyn in particular being gentrified by hipsters and turned into a playground for millionaires.

As was the case for most of my prior themes, this one too is related to my writing. The majority of topics have featured in my books set in New York, in particular The Ballad of Lyuba and Ivan, my family saga which will eventually span 1889–2000ish. New York becomes one of the major settings in May 1921.

I was inspired to make this theme because I’m so excited about the Konevs moving back to New York in June 1952, after living in rural Minnesota since 1929 and belatedly coming to realize that’s not who they are at all. They’re intellectuals and artists craving a like-minded environment, and they miss the convenience of living in the same city as their extended family.

Copyright Beyond My Ken

You’ll learn about places including:

Walden School, a renowned, innovative, popular progressive school on the historic Central Park West. The arts were emphasized, there were no entrance exams, and students had great leeway in choosing their own course of study.

Victorian Flatbush, the western part of Flatbush, Brooklyn, boasting the largest concentration of Victorian houses in the U.S. It includes many protected historic districts, including Ditmas Park, Prospect Park South, Fiske Terrace, Midwood Park, and the Beverley Squares. These are no urban houses either, but large estates with ample yards.

Marble Hill, Manhattan’s northernmost neighborhood, sometimes claimed as the Bronx because it’s on the North American mainland. To date, it’s one of the only affordable Manhattan neighborhoods left for normal people, and there are many detached houses on bucolic streets.

Rockaways’ Playland, a popular Queens amusement park which remained very successful after Coney Island’s depressing slide into decay and irrelevance. Sadly, large portions were destroyed by the evil Robert Moses to build yet another stupid road no one wanted. The owners resisted his attempts to shut down the park completely.

Garden School, an independent school in Jackson Heights, Queens which fosters a strong sense of community and academic excellence in a relaxed environment full of enrichment activities.

Tottenville, Staten Island, the city’s southernmost settlement, with a lot of Victorian houses and low population density.

As much as possible, I’ll focus on lesser-known places instead of ones everyone already knows about.


My names blog will feature (mostly) Estonian names, with wildcards for the letters not found in the Estonian alphabet or any recorded loan names.

Posted in Photography

Random assorted photos of the Romanian and Bulgarian Royal Families

Since I’ve had no time to put together posts on any of the topics I’d planned since my near-entire focus became finishing my alternative history in time for its release and then prepping four of my five books for print editions, here’s another quick, easy-to-put-together post.

After the Ryurikovich and Romanov Dynasties, I think the Romanians are my favourite royals. Not only is Queen Marie one of my favouritest queens, but she had a Russian connection. Her mother was Tsar Aleksandr II’s daughter Mariya. Queen Marie’s youngest daughter Ileana is also one of my favourite princesses. She wasn’t the type who did little more with her life than sit around in royal residences looking pretty.

I love the Bulgarian Royal Family because Tsar Boris III is one of my heroes. He repeatedly risked his life and throne to save his kingdom’s 50,000-strong Jewish community from the Nazis. I absolutely feel there’s merit in the theory he was given a slow-working poison at his final stormy meeting with Hitler, instead of having a heart attack.

Tsar Boris, Tsaritsa Ioanna (née Princess Giovanna of Italy), and their two kids Mariya Luiza and Simeon. The lattermost is the only living person who’s had the title Tsar. Simeon has never renounced his claim to the Bulgarian throne either.

Proud papa Boris with his little boy Simeon.

Big sister Mariya Luiza with baby brother Simeon.

Mariya Luiza and Simeon. I love how little boys all wore short pants in this era.

Four youngest children of Queen Marie. Ileana, on the far left, was very possibly fathered by Prince Barbu Ştirbey instead of King Ferdinand, and Mircea, the baby, was almost certainly fathered by Ştirbey.

Sadly, little Prince Mircea died just two months shy of his fourth birthday, in 1916. One of the many strong clues suggesting his true paternity is the fact that Prince Ştirbey came to his sickbed and stayed through his death.

Cute little Mircea almost always smiled in his photos. Such a tragedy he was taken out of the world so young.

Queen Marie with her middle children Mignon and Nicky.

Queen Marie with her two older daughters, Elisabeta (Lizzy) and Maria (Mignon).

Love the animal print!

Tsar Boris and his siblings, Yevdokiya, Kiril, and Nadezhda.

Mariya Luiza with a doll.

Posted in 1910s, 1920s, Photography, Russian history, Russophilia

Miscellaneous Imperial Family photos

Because I’ve been singularly working on finishing my alternative history in time for its 17 July release, I didn’t have any time left to put together a proper post. Instead, here are some of my photos of Russia’s Imperial Family.

1922 engagement photo of Prince Nikita Aleksandrovich (grandson of Aleksandr III) and childhood friend Countess Mariya Vorontsova-Dashkova. Their oldest son, Prince Nikita Nikitich, appears in my alternative history, as one of the five princes held as ransom by the Eichmann–Kommando in Budapest.

Tsar Ivan V, Peter the Great’s very handsome halfbrother and initial co-Tsar. Though Ivan was very severely disabled, he had a wife and five healthy daughters, and Peter was always so compassionate towards him. He never excluded him from co-ruling, even knowing it was mostly symbolic.

Grand Duke Boris Vladimirovich, second surviving son of the rival Vladimirovichi branch of the family. Though he was quite the womanizer and overspender, he was also known as an excellent host, very friendly and cheerful, with gourmet foods and wines by his tables. He and his little brother Andrey were let out of Bolshevik captivity when their captor recognized Boris as the one who’d bought some of his artwork when he was a struggling artist in France.

Grand Duchess Yelizaveta Fyodorovna (née Princess Elisabeth of Hesse and by Rhine), known as Ella, Empress Aleksandra’s older sister, widow of Grand Duke Sergey Aleksandrovich, in 1887. She later became a nun, and was murdered by the Bolsheviks. In comparison to her sister, she was popular from the moment she arrived in Russia.

Prince Igor Konstantinovich, who marries Grand Duchess Mariya in my alternative history. They have eleven children, ten of whom survive. Had they both lived, he would’ve been a great husband for her, since she wanted so much to marry a nice Russian soldier and have a large family. Knowing she was a hemophilia carrier, and such a sweet person, I gave them eight girls and only three boys. Their second hemophiliac son survives into adulthood and plays a very important role in capturing Hitler alive near the end of the war. Their surprise youngest child, Oleg, is the healthy son they’ve long dreamt of.

Found this among a few blurry pictures while going through my downloads to free up space on my computer, prior to reinstalling and updating my OS. I really hope that photo isn’t what it looks like!

Prince Oleg Konstantinovich, Igor’s favorite brother, said to be the most intelligent of the Konstantinovichi siblings. His death in the war in 1914 devastated their father.

Posted in Photography, Travel

The Zayande River

Copyright Ms96

The Zayande River (Zayanderud) is the largest river in central Iran’s Iranian Plateau. Its genesis is in the Zard-Kuh subrange of the Zagros Mountains, near the southwestern corner of Iran. It ends in the Gavkhouni swamp, east of Isfahan.

The river flows for 249 miles (400 kilometers).

Copyright ظهیری

People have lived along the Zayande for over 50,000 years. The Qaleh Bozi cave complex was home to our Neanderthal cousins, as evidenced by their bones, stone tools, and animal bones. They had a marvellous view of both the river and the plain from their caves.

They were attracted to the area by the permanent river, good sunlight, and a variety of landscapes offering many different types of game and edible plants.

Copyright Alireza Javaheri

Next on the scene was the Zayande River Civilisation, which flourished in the 6th millennium BCE. They lived concurrently to other great ancient civilisations, such as Sumeria and the Indus Valley Civilisation.

Further archaeological expeditions are planned to uncover more details about both this civilisation and the Neanderthals. They’ll focus on two historic hills, in the Gavkhouni swamp and midway alongside the Zayande.

Copyright Alireza Javaheri

Many historic bridges from the Safavid era (1501–1736) cross the river. Isfahan alone has four—Siosepol, Marnan, Joui, and Khaju. There’s also a much-older bridge, Shahrestan, whose foundations date back to the third century BCE. Its top was renovated in the 10th and 11th centuries.


Khaju, Copyright Saeed Majidi

Siosepol, Copyright آرش

The Zayande used to flow through many parks, but much of the river has sadly dried up in recent years. Isfahan was an oasis settlement for centuries, and got its wealth and fertile lands from the Zayande, whose name means “life-giver.”

The water wasn’t used for much outside of agriculture till the 1960s, but a higher cost of living, increased population, and the creation of large steel plants and other modern industries changed everything.

Chadegan Dam, Copyright Meghdad thrust

Chadegan Dam (formerly Shah Abbas Dam), built from 1967–71, has helped to stabilise water flow, create electricity, and prevent seasonal flooding. During Nowruz, the Persian New Year (20, 21, or 22 March), water discharge is upped so as to let the Zayande flow through Isfahan for the holiday.

Today, 80% of the Zayande is used for agriculture, 10% for human consumption, 7% for industry, and 3% for miscellany.

Sadly, the river’s lower reaches are dried-up. Humans caused this drought by poor planning and populist politics which led to overuse and misuse.

Copyright Adam Jones; Source

In Isfahan, where the Zayande still flows, there are many nearby cafés, teahouses, restaurants, parks, and paddle boat rentals.

The Zayande is on Iran’s Natural Heritage List, a project of their Cultural Heritage, Handicrafts, and Tourism Organisation.

Copyright Amin.salehi.16

My characters Inna Zhirinovskaya and Mrs. Brezhneva escape to Isfahan with 40 children and 10 other employees of their orphanage in 1937, during the Great Terror. Inna also takes her little niece Velira, and is soon joined by her younger brother Vitya.

Also in Isfahan is Arkasha Orlov, a former prince whom they met during a brief stop in Aden. Arkasha is smitten with Inna almost from the start, and makes no secret of his romantic interest in her.

On Inna’s 31st birthday in October, they go for a walk along the Siosepol at night, and Inna lets Arkasha kiss her. Arkasha has awakened something inside her, and made her rethink her conviction that she’s meant to be a spinster.

Copyright Babak Farrokhi; Source

I’m still planning to visit Iran to do firsthand research for the final draft of Journey Through a Dark Forest. Americans can apply for Iranian visas through the Pakistan Embassy. It’s a beautiful country, with wonderful people, in spite of how the media portrays it.

The protests which began in December 2017 prove how deeply many Iranians want change. They’re tired of living under a repressive theocracy, and want to return to being a modern, democratic country.

Many protestors have been killed, arrested, or tortured, but that hasn’t stopped them from taking a stand. Change never happened because people sat down and just accepted the status quo. Freedom is never free.